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Our Unsung Patrons and Heroines

The Columbia Foundation

The Columbia Foundation of San Francisco played a significant role in the establishment of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC), the organization that helped Nisei college students continue their studies during World War II. Back in 1943 when the NJASRC was struggling to be established, several private foundations were asked to underwrite their efforts. The John Hazen Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, and the National YMCA and YWCA were contributors, but by far, the most significant contribution came from the Columbia Foundation.

Hints of the critical role of the Columbia Foundation appear in the minutes of the NJASRC’s proceedings, but nowhere was there an explicit recognition of the profound role it played. The Foundation had a policy of maintaining a very low profile in the world of philanthropy, partly because it was a family foundation with members of the distinguished Haas and Russell families directing its policies.

Madeleine Haas Russell, great-grandniece of Levi Strauss, established the Columbia Foundation in 1940 “for the furtherance of the public welfare.” The Foundation’s activities range from the promotion of arts and culture, to environmental causes, to human rights advocacy and to the prevention of war Mrs. Russell passed away in April, 1999.

At two critical points in the life of the NJASRC, the Columbia Foundation offered its support. In January of 1943, the Columbia Foundation provided close to 50% of its operating costs, often for a period of months. “If administrative funds are not found soon, the Council will have to curtail or abandon its program in March,” Clarence Pickett, acting Director of the Council had announced before the grants were received.

The second critical juncture for the Council occurred almost one year later, in January of 1944. Again the Council faced major funding difficulties, and again the Columbia Foundation offered its support. “I wish you could have seen how the sunshine of hope dispelled the fog of doubt and uncertainty the other day when John Nason (then the president of Swarthmore College) announced your grant.” Members who were at the meeting recall vividly the electric impact the grant award announcement made on the Council.

The Columbia Foundation offered those two grants in 1943 and 1944, during extraordinary times. The nation was at war and the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment of the West Coast was patently clear. The voices advocating tolerance and fair play were muted, the actions of persons of good will were few and far between. In this environment, the Columbia Foundation’s grants boldly and courageously affirmed the finest of American ideals. Approximately 5,000 students of the Nisei generation benefited from the Foundation’s courage and generosity. The Foundation helped make it possible for a generation of Nisei to claim their place as contributing members of American society.

Virginia Heck
Virginia Heck was honored at the 1995 NSRCF awards ceremony in Berkeley, California on March 17, 1995.

A life-long Quaker and Whittier College graduate, Virginia was working with teens at the Berkeley Community YWCA when World War II broke out. She and her circle of Quaker friends became deeply concerned with the plight of Japanese Americans being suddenly uprooted from their homes. Virginia had already volunteered at a Friends hostel in Indiana that housed European refugees, so she knew well the trauma involved. Virginia helped arrange college placements for many of her Nisei friends and acquaintances through the NJASRC. She had had previous Japanese connections, having visited Japan twice just before World War II and having heard much about Japan from her aunt who taught there from 1903–23. Virginia retired in Santa Rosa, California. She regrets that so many of the Friends once active in the relocation and resettlement program are no longer here. Among those she remembers with affection are Josephine Duveneck of Los Altos, Dr. Herbert Nicholson of Southern California, and Joe Conard, who directed the San Francisco American Friends Service Committee office. Both Josephine Duveneck and Dr. Nicholson wrote books telling of their experiences helping evacuees.

Virginia Scardigli
Virginia Scardigli was honored at the NSRCF awards ceremony in Berkeley, California on March 17, 1995. This profile of her was printed in the program.

Virginia’s volunteer work for the NJASRC started when she began sorting college catalogs at the Anna Head School in Berkeley, California, in response to pleas for help from Leila Anderson and Ruth Kingman. When the NJASRC opened its office at the Sutter Street YWCA in San Francisco, Virginia became the “point person” on student placements. She remembers her “sardine can” office, which was previously a shower dressing room with five doors. Traffic was heavy: stenographers and staff, visiting clergy inquiring about students, parishioners and friends, conscientious objectors on leave from camp, and even FBI agents who came regularly to check out the “subversive activities.” Most of the staff arrived 15 minutes early each morning for a traditional Quaker period of quiet meditation before the hectic day began. Virginia once joined other staff in a trip to the Tule Lake internment camp to talk to students and parents about educational opportunities. When the NJASRC consolidated its activities in Philadelphia, Virginia remained as the acting West Coast director until the office was closed. In Virginia’s mind, the establishment of the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund is proof positive of the infinite and blessed circle.